November 2010

JC Hallman


An Interview with Jay Kirk

I was first introduced to Jay Kirk at the home of poet Tom Devaney in Philadelphia. Recognizing that our theories of nonfiction rhymed, Tom had invited both of us to the same party, and I've never sufficiently thanked him for the introduction.

As I recall it, Jay had just returned from a magazine-piece trip to England to meet a jester. Like, a real, official court jester. It was good party chat, and I tried to counter with a story about a Satanic ritual I'd attended recently, but Jay can be pretty intimidating with his range of knowledge. We quickly gravitated toward a bed of common belief about how nonfiction is being practiced these days.

And that's something you need to know about Jay's new book, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals. It's one of those books that's bound to be misshelved in bookstores, if for no other reason than that a shelf for non-memoir nonfiction that truly aspires to art has yet to be built. It's about safari, yes, and a marriage, and the history of conservation, and biography, and art, too -- and because of all that you might have to go on a bit of safari to find it. But you should.

Jay himself was easier to find. He is at home, where he answers e-mails. And sometimes he even returns calls.

You've written magazine articles on subjects ranging from bizarre fetishes, to peculiar crimes, to The Vidocq Society. How did you first stumble across Carl Akeley, and how did you know his story could sustain a book-length work?

I first ran across the name Carl Akeley while working on a story for Harper’s. It was a piece about all of these inexplicable sightings of mountain lions in the eastern U.S. -- inexplicable because the eastern mountain lion (aka cougar, puma) has been extinct since 1888. It was the first story that got me into the whole natural history thing, and it was in the midst of spending a lot of time roaming mountainsides in Appalachia with game wardens and amateur cougar experts, and reading a lot of natural history, that I read this bit in passing about the “famous taxidermist” who had once Strangled a Leopard with His Bare Hands. That grabbed my attention and I started poking around. There was never any question that Akeley’s story could sustain a book-length project -- I mean, once I dug in, it was just overwhelming how much story was there.

The first scene -- Akeley killing and slaughtering a mountain gorilla -- sets the book's grisly tone and establishes that you intend to blend a scholar's rigorous devotion to demonstrable fact with a novelist's license to enter at length into a character's mind. Akeley is sometimes a hard guy to like -- particularly when he's carving up gorillas. Yet you seem to identify with him. Is this because he thinks of himself as an artist?  Does "creative nonfiction" have some of Akeley's same problem in hovering between utilitarian function and beauty?

It’s true, I do identify with Akeley, even occasionally when he’s being a monster. I mean here’s a guy who’s creating three-dimensional nonfiction tableaux who’s literally killing his subjects to reinvent them. There’s definitely something exploitative about writing nonfiction, where you take your subjects out of the chaotic wilderness of real life and then rearrange their corpses. It’s fun work, but sometimes you feel like you’re engaging in something that ought to be illegal. In a way, Akeley’s own work often seemed to me to be a metaphor for the work of writing narrative nonfiction -- before you fully resurrect your subject, there’s a little bloodshed involved. Even if, in my case, the blood was usually a result of a paper cut.

Kingdom Under Glass is preoccupied with ideas of preservation, both literal and figurative. Assuming you didn't make the connection between preservation and history right off the bat, can you pinpoint the moment when you realized that preservation was, in a sense, both the book's subject and its strategy?

The idea of preservation began to be a real motif after I became aware of some of the underlying ideas that belonged to Akeley’s boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, and how Osborn's fears and ideas about eugenics partly embodied the anxieties of the nativist upper classes. Your JP Morgans, Rockefellers, and so on, many of whom were trustees of the AMNH, by the way, feared that they would be unable to preserve the “purity of their race plasm.” The idea of the diorama as membrane between us and them seemed an apt metaphor, especially when you consider how Osborn intentionally developed some of his exhibits to “educate” the lower classes who were crowding the lower east end of his beloved Manhattan. Basically, he felt like he could inspire them to know their place by showing how, look, animals don’t mix races, nature knows its place, there’s no jumping diorama compartments!  These were not thoughts commonly shared at the museum -- Franz Boas, for instance, thought Osborn was a total ass. And Akeley certainly was not creating his own dioramas with that kind of garbage in mind. But the notion was there, and it served as one of the over-arching societal metaphors for my book, along with shrinking wilderness, the shrinking sense of self, and other modern era anxieties. As well as, yes, a commentary on the act of writing history itself.

History itself is diorama-like -- old, dead facts brought to life with a new organization and arrangement. Yet you don't have to be a creative writer to be a historian. What does a creative writer bring to the task of history that a historian won't or can't?

Well, for one, I guess I don’t have the same responsibility to account for everything that a proper historian does. Since my own main objective, or ultimate purpose, is story, not analysis, I have more license, not to invent, but perhaps arrange, or play around with, the material. The material, of course, being the same as that used by the historian -- the primary sources, diaries, books, newspaper articles, correspondence, the photographic archives, etc. As a creative writer, however, I’m thinking in terms of character, and scenes, mood -- I’m thinking about what is most compelling, what’s most entertaining. What the historian would probably not do is omit “important” things because he or she finds them boring, where I have no hang-ups about doing that at all. Part of the reason I used the Eric Foner epigraph -- “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination” -- was to signal to my reader right away what they’re getting themselves into. That the vehicle I’ll be using to take them on this safari is not an objectivist’s dray, but more of a recreational vehicle -- in the sense that I am trying to recreate the experiences of my subjects.

Did you have a particular model for this? Were there particular writers -- either fiction or nonfiction -- you were taking in regularly as you worked?

For me the word “regular” could never be used to describe my reading habits. I am, and my wife Julie will verify this, a completely neurotic reader. It’s something I actually get upset about, choosing what to read. On a bad night I might start to dig into four or five books, read ten pages of each, dislike them all equally, and then end up pouting and watching TV instead. I never feel any guilt whatsoever about ditching a book if I’m not totally captivated. I have the proverbial eclectic stack of twenty books by my bedside, with the current pile including Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, which is currently getting my most sincere attention; Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish; a book about improving your handwriting (my own looks like that of a left-handed walrus), and, coincidentally enough, and with no intention of brown-nosing, but your book In Utopia, which is really amazing by the way. But, no, to answer your question, I can’t really say I had any models, per se, for Kingdom Under Glass.

You use multiple points of view. What criteria did you use for deciding the point of view of particular scenes? Were these decisions dictated by aesthetic concern, or the materials available to you?

Good question. All choices, of course, in nonfiction are dictated by the materials available and in my case the available sources were voluminous enough that much of the work was really deciding what not to use. Every writer should be so lucky. But the criteria for choosing point of view changed constantly. I rewrote scenes that were originally from Carl’s point of view, then changed them back to Mickie’s point of view, and then back again. Sometimes, oddly enough, and I know this might not make sense, but I think one of my strategies -- at least for certain scenes that had a kind of overly sensational quality -- was to try and create greater credibility via distance. To conceal, or summarize, or in some cases just abbreviate the most sensational moments. Therefore, when Carl was attacked by the elephant, and jumped up and grabbed both tusks, and all this Errol Flynn stuff, it always felt way too far-fetched, even though it’s completely true, and so I decided to kind of remove it a bit by focusing more on where Mickie was during the elephant attack. To opt for the domestic angle, if that makes any sense. I guess that also contributed to creating more suspense, by holding off what had happened to Carl, and letting the reader find out along with Mickie, who’s thinking he’s dead for sure. As a practical matter, however, it was usually easier to write from Mickie’s point of view, since she was always more forthcoming in her diaries and books, whereas to create Carl’s point of view. I relied a lot more on what I’ve been calling “collage,” where I imported stuff to create a more emotional internal dimension. He was always great at describing the basic manly action of what he was doing -- chopping up a gorilla, leaping on an elephant’s face -- but I found I had to rely on juxtaposing some of the more emotional things that would come up in correspondence with his friends, for instance.

You fairly often blaze into the unknowable, assigning stray thoughts and gestures to characters inside moments that wouldn't have seemed particularly momentous at the time (and so aren't likely to have wound up in safari memoirs). Given that all these small decisions are based either wholly or in part on research, did you ever have a moment when you pulled back from applying a creative process to a body of fact, a moment when an impulse crossed your own personal line between fiction and fact?

I disagree that these things are unknowable. Any thoughts directly assigned to a character, stray or otherwise, are grounded in source. I don’t need a diary entry to tell me that my character flicked a fly buzzing near his face. I feel like common sense adequately covers a lot of that stuff. And when common sense isn’t enough, there is always basic inference: if they’re hiking, they wipe sweat from their brow, etc. As for having the impulse to fudge things here and there, yes, that is a constant thing to keep in check. It’s hard to stop the imagination from wanting to interject, especially when the primary documents go thin, or something doesn’t really go the way you kind of hoped it would go, where you feel a very palatable sense of frustration, an itch that you could easily scratch if the medium were fiction instead of nonfiction. But that itch often just forces you to attend even closer to the materials at hand, to look deeper, to think harder on what you have, until the right detail, the right arrangement, or the right omission, solves the problem and pleases the story. I should say it is often at those moments of greatest frustration -- where the writer has a bona fide artistic “problem” -- that often leads to the greatest innovations. It forces you out of cliché.

Just about all of your magazine work includes you, either as an active presence that interferes with whatever story you are reporting on, or a more passive presence that lurks in the background, yet is palpable. Here you're entirely absent. Why?

I originally planned to put myself in the story. I had this somewhat convoluted plan where it would these interpolated chapters, going back and forth between the historical third person Akeley, and chapters where I would be hanging out with this taxidermist I met from New Jersey named John Janelli, who was going to educate me in the Akeley Method -- ideally with something more interesting than a deer. On one occasion Janelli arranged to euthanize a terminally ill elephant from some roadside attraction in Florida. He was going to bring back the body on a flatbed to a barn somewhere in rural Jersey, where he assured me I would get the chance to help him skin and then mount it exactly as Akeley had done with the rotting corpse of Jumbo. I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t a little relieved when this opportunity failed to materialize. But I guess, in the end, I realized the book had enough narrative with adding any journalistic hijinks. So I left myself out of the book -- except for one small role. It’s kind of my Hitchcock moment. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but on page 278, I’m actually one of the actors in a gorilla suit. If you look carefully, you can see me give a little of wink at the reader. It’s a pretty subtle act of postmodernism, but it’s there.